A stunning basilica, local artisans selling crafts and an array of restaurants and museums are among the sights in Guadalajara Mexico’s historic Zapopan district.
While Guadalajara’s historic center is typically and understandably the first port of call for visitors, the colonial center of the city’s Zapopan district is all too often overlooked. With its spacious plazas and cobbled streets, the historic heart of Zapopan is cleaner, quieter and more pleasant than downtown Guadalajara.
Formally founded by the Spanish in 1541 (although previously inhabited by various indigenous cultures), Zapopan is the largest of the eight municipalities that comprise the Guadalajara metropolitan area. The must-visit area for tourists is the centro historico. Marked by the Arco de Ingreso, a towering stone archway, at the confluence of Avenida de las Americas and Avila Camacho, the entrance is impossible to miss.
There are also an array of high-quality Mexican and international restaurants, each with outdoor seating and distinctive Mexican folk music blasting from inside. (The delightful Greek cuisine at Agios Aggelos should not be missed.) Visitors who prefer a quick snack will find dozens of stalls along the main avenue selling everything from tacos and chips to fried bananas and churros.
Despite being in the middle of a major metropolis, the streets still have a small-town vibe. Kids frolic freely as entire families stroll along the avenues. Local artisans sell their products, including toy dolls, mini wooden guitars, handmade jewelry and traditional indigenous clothing, from modest street-side stalls.
The Virgin of Zapopan
The focal point of the historic district is the Basilica of Our Lady of Zapopan, a spectacular Franciscan sanctuary built between the 17th and 19th centuries. The site was the scene of mass devotion in 1979 when an enormous crowd of Catholics gathered in the atrium to greet Pope John Paul II, who visited the Basilica during the first-ever papal visit to Mexico.
The Basilica is famed as the home of the Virgin of Zapopan, an image of the Virgin Mary made by artists in the nearby state of Michoacan in the early 16th century. Made of corn stalks and wood, the Virgin stands 34 centimeters tall (13 inches) and was brought to the area amid the Spanish efforts to evangelize Mexico’s indigenous population.
Labeled a miracle worker by a local bishop, the Virgin is credited with bringing an end to the Mixton War in the 16th century as well as providing relief from storms and epidemics that plagued Guadalajara in the 17th century.
Every year on Oct. 12 (Columbus Day, or Dia de la Raza as it is known in Spanish), a large procession draws huge crowds across the city to follow the Virgin to the Basilica. This tradition began in 1734 and has become increasingly popular over the years, with over two million people participating in 2012 and 2013.
From 6 a.m., the image is carried from Guadalajara’s iconic Metropolitan Cathedral along streets packed with dancers, mariachis, artisans, food vendors and spectators until it reaches the Basilica, where the celebrations continue with fireworks being set off long into the night.
Art Museums and Galleries
The area is also home to a number of galleries and art museums such Museo de Arte de Zapopan (MAZ), found at number 166 on the main avenue Andador 20 de Noviembre. The MAZ hosts a number of permanent and temporary exhibitions – mostly of modern or contemporary art – as well as workshops. It is open Tuesday to Sunday from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. (10 p.m. on Thursdays). Entry is 13 pesos, just over $1 USD.
The north side of the aforementioned Basilica is home to the Museo Huichol Wixarica de Zapopan, a small museum dedicated to the art and culture of the indigenous Huichol people that inhabit the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range and surrounding areas in the states of Jalisco, Nayarit, Durango and Zacatecas.
Among the most loved Huichol handicrafts are their brightly colored beaded sculptures and artworks inspired in equal measure by the local wildlife, their religious beliefs and the hallucinogenic cactus peyote. The museum also showcases the work of the Tepehuan and Cora peoples, and there is a modest gift shop from which visitors can take home unique souvenirs including jewelry, masks and tapestries.
Duncan Tucker is a freelance journalist from the UK. He speaks fluent Spanish and has lived in Guadalajara, Mexico for over three years. A former staff writer at the Guadalajara Reporter, Duncan is now associate editor of Nearshore Americas and also writes regularly for Al Jazeera and the Huffington Post. Much of his work can be found on his blog The Tequila Files. Follow Duncan on Twitter @DuncanTucker.